Sin Pardoned, Right Restored

They don’t make ’em like they used to.

In the case of all the militant old crusading hymns, I suppose it’s a good thing on balance. The word “crusade” as anything positive has almost completely died a death, and on that at least I have no regrets. The Crusades and all the bloodshed, death and atrocity committed therein remain one of the most horrible sins of the global Church, and I for one don’t see any advantage to trying to use the Christian equivalent of the word Jihad for what ought to be the spread of the Good News by peaceful, nonviolent means.

Still, for all that there’s a large part of me that regrets the apparent demise of all the martial old hymns: “Onward Christian Soldiers”, “We Rest on Thee, our Shield and our Defender”, “Thy Hand, O God, Hath Guided”, “Fight the Good Fight”.

For one thing, I happen to groove to the bombastic strains of that sort of music. I find the sheer pompous martiality of it deeply satisfying on a primal level. It should be little surprise, given how my taste in Classical music runs: the Marche Slave, the 1812 Overture, In the Hall of the Mountain King

Yes, of course I’m aware that the words can be easily misconstrued by those who don’t understand. Someone is always going to hear “Marching as to war” as a call to actual physical battle, if only to make an objection to it.

But surely many of our modern worship songs have words that are equally fraught with the potential for misunderstanding? You’re trying to tell me that the sloppy wet lyrics of Oh How He Loves Us aren’t going to be misinterpreted as a perversity by anyone not determined not to? Or that anything recorded by Mandisa isn’t a redirected boyfriend song?

We’re quite willing to re-image the Godhead through the lens of Venus, it seems, but to do the same through the lens of Mars is still apparently anathema.

I mention all of this mostly as an introduction, because I recently rediscovered the wonderful old martial hymn Thy Hand, O God, Hath Guided.

If you’re unfamiliar with it, it has one of those wonderfully sprightly, military-march kind of tunes, and though its lyrics are less martial than some, they’re really quite instructive:

Thy hand, O God, hath guided

Thy flock from age to age

The wondrous tale is written

Full clear on every page

Our fathers owned Thy goodness

And we their deeds record

And both of these bear witness:

One Church, one Faith, one Lord.

Thy heralds told Thy message

To greatest as to least

To all the invitation

To share the great King’s feast

Their Gospel of redemption –

Sin pardoned, right restored –

Was all in this enfolded:

One Church, one Faith, one Lord.

Thy mercy shall not fail us

Nor leave Thy work undone

With Thy right hand to help us

The vict’ry shall be won

And then, by men and angels,

Thy name shall be adored

And this shall be our anthem:

One Church, one Faith, one Lord.

It’s actually the second verse that particularly struck me. I think it’s one of the best and most personally helpful depictions of evangelism that I’ve seen in a while. Ok, there’s no particular emphasis that we ought to be numbered among those “heralds”, but in the context of verse 1’s focus on the deeds of those who have gone on before us it makes perfect sense. I’m not sure that actually needs to be in there, because I can’t hear those soaring strains without being filled with a desire to emulate those bygone heroes of the Faith.

The message is told to “all”, to “greatest as to least”. It may be my latent Mediaevalism that seizes on this so strongly, as it’s not a social division that would readily come to the mind of someone raised in the republican democracy of the modern United States, but it’s worth bearing in mind. How many of us, even if we are comfortable telling the Message to “the least of these”, are comfortable telling the Message to the rich and the powerful?

The “invitation” is not to get your needs met. Not to discover how much God loves you, not even to get your sins forgiven. The image is a different one: sharing in the great King’s feast.

I have to say I love this image. I love the overtones of celebration, magnanimity and the raising up of the bowed down, the notes of fellowship that do not drown out the clarion-call of majesty. For me at least, it strikes the right balance between God’s Immanuel nearness and His YHWH Sabaoth power and royalty.

Not that getting your sins forgiven is completely ignored, you understand. The song immediately transitions to “sin pardoned, right restored” as a summary of the “Gospel of Redemption”. I’ll admit that the Gospel being “in this enfolded:/One Church, one Faith, one Lord” wouldn’t be my normal pithy summary of the Good News, but maybe there’s more even to that that it appears at first glance.

Anyway, “sin pardoned, right restored”. I like this as a summary of the Gospel. Not merely getting your sins forgiven, but being transferred to the side of righteousness. The call to bring justice and mercy in the world, restoring Right. There are so many places and spheres in our modern world that need “right restored” that we neglect this aspect of the Good News, and yet this is no mere social Gospel or substitution of activism for right relationship with the Father. It goes hand in hand with “sin pardoned”; the two are part of the same Gospel of redemption.

Not only that, but “right restored” in our own lives as well. Not just the requirement to live holy lives pleasing to the Lord, but also the ability to do so. Not in our own strength, but through the power of His indwelling Spirit. This, too, is the Gospel of redemption. Because if we’re only forgiven of our sins and left in our fallen old natures, we only have half a redemption.

So, “enfolded” in “one Church, one Faith, one Lord”?

I’ve always had a strong interest in church unity, but I don’t think even I would go so far as to say it “enfolds” the entirety of the Gospel. Still, Jesus did say that “by this all people shall know that you are My disciples: that you love one another”.

One of the most persistent objections of those who reject Faith concerns the dividedness of the church. In my native Britain, at least, I believe we’re mostly past the hard division of ourselves along denominational lines and its accompanying suspicion and denigration of “those Baptists/Methodists/Anglicans/Pentecostals/whatevers”. America has yet to fully catch up, but I am confident she’ll get there, if only that in the upcoming generations there aren’t enough of us to make Christian domination of the spiritual marketplace an assured thing any more. On a purely human level, we’re no longer competing just with ourselves for market share; there are Muslims and Buddhists and Taoists and Shinto, not to mention atheists, outright pagans and everyone else.

Even maintaining our different denominational names (and there are good reasons to do so), being “One Church” in the important sense of being “one in spirit and purpose” cuts the ground out from under this argument like only the truth can. One Faith, because we do all believe the same core body of doctrine. One Lord, whom we all worship. It’s important.

Then, too, “one Church, one Faith, one Lord” speaks more subtly to the absolute right He has to our service.

This isn’t something we talk much about as Christ’s followers. It’s a truth we find uncomfortable; it strikes directly at the heart of our independent-minded “no-one tells me what to do!” determination to have our own way.

More, it’s something that runs directly counter to this present age’s glorification of rebellion and self-will. There is a truth in this present age: no-one but you are answerable to your own conscience. But the fact that God has a right to expect our worship, loyalty and service – our fealty, to use the old Mediaevalist term? No, we don’t talk much about that.

It’s true, though, and the sooner we accept His right to our obedience the better off we will be for discipleship purposes. As others have said, the Gospel preached by the Apostles wasn’t “Come to Jesus and get your needs met”; it really was “Jesus is Lord; what are you going to do about it?”

The link to this from “one Church, one Faith, one Lord” isn’t all that overt, I’ll admit. But the fact that there really is “one Lord” to whom we owe our highest allegiance as His right, “one Faith” alone, “one Church” composed of all those who call on His Name, that to me communicates Jesus’ absolute right to our allegiance.

Peter’s Pentecost Sermon

This Pentecost I thought I’d take a look at Peter’s famous Pentecost sermon.

Acts Chapter 2 is quite a long chapter, and Peter’s sermon takes up a considerable portion of the number of verses. Indeed, while the actual coming of the Holy Spirit takes place in only four verses, Peter’s speech takes up well over half of the chapter.

Luke obviously thought it was important, though sometimes we’re more apt to focus on the action, the event of the Spirit’s Coming.

Certainly the event itself is vital. It’s been described, with justification, as the birth of the Church, and without it, there probably wouldn’t be a Church as we know it. And yet, over half of the crucial chapter is Peter making a speech.

In some ways I almost wonder why it’s in there. What’s so important about this speech that it’s recorded in at least gist form for posterity?

It’s not like it’s a major section of moral instruction like the Sermon on the Mount, or a major Christological teaching like Colossians 1. Why did Luke consider it so important to record, and why did God consider it so important to preserve?

It’s one of several major speeches or sermons in the Book of Acts: there’s this one, there’s Stephen’s defence speech to the Sanhedrin, there’s Paul’s speech to the Areopagus, and there are several of Paul’s defence speeches before Roman magistrates. And in a sense, my question is the same for all of them: why is this here?

Peter’s “sermon” here is the first time there’s ever been an evangelistic talk given by someone who’s only human. In that sense it has the same overall purpose as Paul’s speech to the Areopagus: evangelism. Perhaps Luke intends these as “sample evangelistic messages” for us to draw on, emulate and learn from.

As such, the two speeches couldn’t be more different. Peter’s speech starts from a remarkable miraculous sign, takes in Biblical testimony, the life of King David, and several prophetic Scriptural statements and comes to Jesus’ identity as the promised Messiah from the perspective of the fulfillment of Scripture. Paul’s speech starts from the city of Athens’ rampant idolatry and the altar “to the unknown god”, takes in logic, pagan Greek poetry originally written about Zeus, and cutting-edge contemporary thought about the nature of reality and comes to Jesus’ identity as the Creator’s representative on Earth from the perspective of someone to whom Jewish Scripture was an unknown source.

The two speeches reflect their different audiences’ needs, and illustrate the dichotomy Paul mentions in I Corinthians 1: “Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom”.

If I’m right in my hypothesis that Luke (and the Holy Spirit) intend these sermons as illustrative messages for “how to do evangelism”, then Peter’s speech should be seen as “how to do evangelism with Jews” – people having the Scriptures and recognising their authority, who know that there is one God and know much of what He is like from His Scriptures. Paul’s speech, conversely, is “how to do evangelism with Greeks” – pagans, people not knowing the Scriptures or recognising their authority. It’s an important difference, and one we should bear in mind, because it’s no good quoting Scripture to back up a point if your audience doesn’t recognise Scriptural authority.

Nevertheless, Peter’s sermon is for Jews. Jews from all over the world, but Jews. Many of whom would have been in Jerusalem for Passover and seen the events of Holy Week, heard the reports of the resurrection, even, and not known what to make of it all.

Peter’s speech is occasional, made in response to the crowd’s desire for an explanation of the fact that 120 Galilean hicks were loudly declaring the praises of God in languages from all over the known world.

This is as remarkable as a busload of East Texan rednecks suddenly speaking fluent Khalkh Mongolian, Dari, Quechua and Swahili. For all that America is a “melting-pot” of diverse nations and cultures, Americans are even worse than the English when it comes to learning foreign languages, and Galileans were just as uncosmopolitan. Something, evidently, was going on, and whatever it was was very remarkable.

Into this knowledge vacuum Peter steps, with an explanation of what is going on that ties together the present events, Scriptural prophecy, the Messianic expectations of that Scriptural prophecy and the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

It’s very clever, actually.

Peter’s first order of business is to counter the mockery of those who blamed all the noise and commotion on the disciples’ drunkenness. No, it cannot be; it’s too early in the morning for those who start drinking at dawn to be fully gone, and too late for the all-night carousers. No, he explains, this is a fulfillment of the prophet Joel’s words, about the coming of the Holy Spirit on all flesh.

This is fairly straightforward, but to our Western, non-Jewish ears, the next part looks like a non-sequitur. “Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God…”

What we’re missing is the fact that the implications of Joel’s prophecy were that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit was a sign of the age of the Messiah’s Kingdom. The natural question for a Jewish person in that day and age would probably have been “well if this is that, where’s the Kingdom of Messiah?”

It’s in answer to that unspoken question that Peter brings in the life and witness of Jesus. He has Messiah’s imprint in terms of being accredited by God in deeds of power and holiness. Though betrayed and handed over to death by fallen, sin-stained human beings, he bears Messiah’s imprint in that God raised Him from the dead – and we’re not making this up; we’re eyewitnesses. We saw it.

I can almost hear the baffled crowd now. “But even if He were raised from the dead, how can He truly be Messiah if He died? He’s the Son of David who will reign on his throne, not die on a cross!”

And so Peter turns once again to Scripture. Beginning at that Messianic title, “Son of David”, he takes David’s own prophetic psalms and brings out of them the full depth of their meaning: that though David died and was buried, he was looking forward when he wrote that to One who would not be abandoned in the grave. This is Jesus, he finishes. You crucified Him – and he makes no bones about laying the blame at the crowd’s feet – but God has made Him both “Lord”, as David said, and Christ, David’s Son and the heir of the Kingdom.

Perhaps one of the important things for us today, especially those of us who are Gentiles, is to recognise that the huge numbers of people added to the Church after this sermon were not added purely by the magical-seeming means of the Holy Spirit overruling their minds by a touch on their hearts. It matters what we say when we speak about who Jesus is. There’s an appeal not just to the emotions but also to reason. Starting from what his Jewish audience already knew about God and Messiah from the Scriptures, Peter reasons with the crowd that Jesus is, in fact, the One that was promised.

Interestingly enough for our own evangelistic efforts, there’s absolutely no appeal here to Jesus meeting felt needs. Peter’s message is uncompromising; it’s “Jesus is the promised Messiah and you crucified Him”. There’s no evidence here of the Jesus who can help us deal with our anger issues or set us free from our poor self-image. He can, but that’s not where Peter focuses his message. This crowd know what Messiah’s supposed to be: He’s the One who will establish God’s Kingdom on earth and really make us into a holy nation and a people of God’s own possession. Peter’s insistence that “you crucified him” isn’t very PC. It’s not even tactful. But it comes to the heart of the issue.

The Jewish nation of the time thought they were pretty special. They had the patriarchs, the Law, the Commandments, the Scriptures. They were God’s own people, whom He loved more than anyone else on the face of the earth.

The fact that God’s own people could so devastatingly miss it as to crucify His Own Son wasn’t in their thinking.

No wonder, when it registered, that they were “cut to the heart”. God must be so angry with us! We’re no better – and quite a bit worse, because we had no excuse – than pagans! What can we possibly do to make it right?

So at the end, it comes down to the forgiveness of sins. The forgiveness of the sins of a crowd that counted themselves “righteous” and “Godly”, and didn’t even know that they had them.

“Repent (turn around, change your mind and your ways) and be baptised (just like a pagan who wanted to join themselves to the Jewish nation and become a worshipper of the true God) for the forgiveness of sins…”

We’re All Broken

“Brokenness” language seems to have become common among followers of Jesus today to describe the human condition. “We’re all broken”, numerous songs declare, or “I was broken, but Jesus made me whole”, or similar.

As an attempt to move beyond Christianese and find a new way to communicate the Biblical truth that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”, I’ll grant that something needed to happen. “Broken” may be a more accessible image than “sinful” for people who don’t really understand the word “sin” at all (and often think it means “sex”. Or only “big” things like murder).

If saying “everyone has sinned” has become meaningless to our listeners, then certainly we need to find another way of getting that idea across.

And the modern generation seems to have settled on “broken” as the primary metaphor.

It’s got a lot of things to recommend it, but it’s got some problems as well, and while I’m not suggesting we axe it from our vocabulary, I am suggesting that maybe making it our sole way of describing human sinfulness is not as helpful as all that.

Firstly, though, the good.

“We’re all broken” is, as I’ve said, often more easily understood than “we’re all sinners”. “Sinners” is a church word that people in general don’t understand or have a meaning for. Depending on who you ask, you’ll get various answers according to whatever the current Christian social bugbears are. Homosexual people. Abortionists. Liberals. People having sex. It’s a word of condemnation and the way some people claiming the name of Christ have thrown it around as an all-purpose accusation for anyone who disagrees with them has shorn it of its actual meaning.

“Broken” is better than this. It comes with a meaningful image – we’re flawed, imperfect, in need of repair. The fact that it conjures up an image does aid in communication.

Saying “we’re all broken” may also be perceived as less hostile than “we’re all sinners”. A common complaint of people who are not part of a church is that “Christains are always hostile and telling me I’m a sinner”. And we want to reach people and be heard, not rejected outright. There are ways to communicate the idea that we’ve all done wrong things and failed to do right ones without saying “You miserable sinner!”. If “We’re all broken” communicates this to the person you’re talking with, without getting you dismissed out of hand as another Christian hypocrite, you should by all means use that language.

Then, too, “We’re all broken” places us all on the same side. Christians have often given the impression that “we are the good guys, you people out there are the bad guys”. Us against them. You need salvation, you horrible sinners, but we Christians are just fine as we are.

This hasn’t ever been true, and “We’re all broken” is, paradoxically, an attempt to fix this. We’re aware that we all need rescuing from the desire we all have to do the wrong and not do the right. We’re all in need of forgiveness, restored relationships with God and other people, power to beat our addictions, an end to our habit of using other people for what we can get out of them.

“We’re all broken” is an attempt to find an image that communicates the idea that Christians are no different from anyone else in our need of the rescuing and restoration that only God can do.

But when we use imagery, we do need to be careful that the image produced in people’s minds is the one we want. That’s the power and the danger of metaphorical and image-rich language. It can communicate powerfully, but may have unintended connotations.

In this case, part of the problem is that we are no longer a society that repairs very much. If something is broken, we’re apt to throw it away and get a new one rather than repair it. And while technically this is sort of like what God does (“I will take away your hearts of stone and give you hearts of flesh” etc), the idea that God is going to throw us away because of our sin is not the one we want to be communicating.

Second, because of our societal habit of throwing away broken things, we tend to associate “broken” with “worthless”. Even if we’re talking about a valuable antique, the fact that it’s broken makes it worth less than an intact one. Depending on the extent of the damage, it may be worth considerably less. And this is a huge problem with this language.

“We’re all worthless, but God loves us anyway” is a lie from hell. It’s a seductive one, in a perverse sort of way, because a lot of us are already at least half-convinced it’s true.

We know the darkness within. We’ve all experienced rejection, whether from parents or authority figures or our peers. So much of our social skills are learning to camouflage our weaknesses and pretend that we’re cool; an endless quest for acceptance and worth. We deny it because we know with our minds that it’s self-destructive and unhealthy, but deep down we still half believe the lie that we have little or no value.

But it is a lie, and maybe we need to stop feeding it with our “broken” language.

I have intrinsic value, because I’m a human being made by a good, powerful and loving God in His own image. I have infinite worth and eternal significance – valuable enough and important enough that God couldn’t live without me. Literally.

And we can all put “I” in all of that.

The Bible itself uses a number of different ways to communicate the idea that everyone is in need of the salvation, the rescue that He has provided. The idea of righteous life (“There is not a righteous man alive who does what is right and never sins”). The idea of falling short, of missing the target. The idea of needing to be washed from our dirt, of needing cleansing as from an infectious disease. The idea that we were dead and in need of a resurrection. The idea of a second birth.

“Broken” can be a useful metaphor, but we should be aware of its limitations. Sometimes we may not be saying what we think we are, and we may well need to use a different image.

And that’s the point. There is no one-size-fits-all word we can use to communicate the idea of human sinfulness and need for rescue to everyone. For some people, it may be as simple as saying “we’ve all screwed up in some measure”. For others, the key truth may be that we’re each responsible for our own crap; for still others, that we don’t have to remain a helpless victim of what other people have done to us.

As communicators of the Good News, we need to listen – really listen without condemning, dismissing their concerns, passing judgment or trying to fix it – to the people around us. They aren’t going to tell us their deepest, darkest secrets straight away; we have to earn the right to hear that. And in earning the right to hear where they’re really coming from, we also earn the right to be heard when we say that Jesus can do something about it.

In some senses it’s not easy. It’s going to take time and focused effort; this is the opposite of the “drive-by witnessing”. We have to have real friendships with actual people based on them as friends, not evangelism targets.

But in another sense it’s the easiest thing in the world. It requires no special training to make friends with people based on shared interests, whether that’s quilting or mechanics or Star Wars or LEGO or fishing or sports. It happens on its own, even for us introverts. And when a deep, “spiritual” conversation happens among friends, it happens naturally in the course of friendship, unforced and without a phony sales agenda.

Some people are gifted at building connections with other people very quickly. I’m not; I’m a typical guarded and reticent introvert; it takes time to get to know me thoroughly (though I’ll tell you what I think on any subject you name. My opinions aren’t quite the same as me). But even I can make friends, though I’m seldom sure how it happened. And I usually have a pretty good idea that perhaps saying X rather than Y will raise my friend’s hackles.

That, and actually following the promptings of the Holy Spirit, are all we need to “do evangelism”.

O Families of Nations

My regular Bible readings took me to Psalm 96 yesterday.

It’s a fairly familiar Psalm, beginning “Sing to the LORD a new song”. And the thing about fairly familiar passages is that they are easy to gloss over. If we’ve been following Jesus for any length of time, we can have a tendency to read them almost by rote, not really taking it in but just letting the words wash over us.

What struck me today about the passage was its evangelistic, missionary emphasis.

We can tend to think that in the Old Testament, God is exclusively concerned with Israel. They are the people with whom He has made a Covenant. They are the people He calls His own. They are the nation of faith. All the stories of Joshua, Gideon, King David, Elisha and the rest are all stories of God fighting against the evil pagans who are attacking His people.

Right?

Well, yes and no.

Yes, God is certainly concerned to maintain His Covenant with His people. Even when they are faithless, He remains faithful.

So He’s going to defend them. He has a purpose and plan for them that is not served by their destruction. More, He genuinely loves them and wants their good.

But it never has been solely about Israel. They were and remain God’s chosen people, but chosen for what purpose?

Chosen so that through them God might display His glory to the world.

Abraham was blessed as the father of many nations, ancestor of Israel and father to the nation of faith. But the corollary of that was always that “through you all the nations of the earth will be blessed”.

Psalm 96 makes it clear that God wants the praise not just of His Covenant people, but of all peoples. “The gods of the nations are idols, but YHWH made the heavens” is basically evangelistic in tone. Turn away from these worthless things that you have been serving! There is a real, Living God that made the heavens and can actually do something to help you!

“Ascribe to the LORD, o families of nations/Ascribe to the LORD glory and strength/Ascribe to the LORD the glory due to His name” continues the theme. Giving glory to the LORD is right not just for Israel, not just for His Covenant people whether Old or New, but for all the earth and its families of nations. He made the whole world; He has a right to the praise of the whole world. More, “the gods of the nations are idols”, and ascribing God’s majesty and attributes to a created thing is enslaving yourself to a lie.

It doesn’t much matter if that created thing is money, sex, power, the stars and planets, a carved block of wood or a human philosophy or ideology, it’s a made thing, not a Maker. And when you attribute to it that which is rightfully God’s, that’s the point at which it becomes an idol.

And the passage goes on even more remarkably: “Bring an offering, and come into His courts”. This is, of course, a reference to the Temple worship in Jerusalem.

Under the Law of Moses, Gentiles were forbidden from coming into the Temple beyond the outer court, known as “the court of the Gentiles”. They could observe and listen, but they were outside the Covenant and barred from participation unless they became a Jew by being circumcised and obeying the Law of Moses. “Bring an offering and come into His courts” is especially shocking because it follows on from “Ascribe to the LORD, o families of nations”. In Hebrew, the words “nations” and “Gentiles” are the same, so the sense is pretty clear. Here is King David, prophetically reaching forward to a time when Gentiles will no longer be barred from the worship of God. A time when the invitation to “bring an offering and come into His courts” is for everyone, not just a chosen few.

Part of what the Cross does is open doors and destroy barriers. The sacrificial death of Jesus opens the way for the Gentile, the outsider, to be brought all the way inside the promises of God. And what Psalm 96 helps to show is that this was always the plan. The Gentile Church wasn’t a surprise to God. It was already in the plan. It was the plan: no division any more, but one people worshipping one God.

We can see foreshadowings of it with the Egyptians who chose to go with Israel (ref), with Rahab (a Canaanite), Ruth (a Moabite), Bathsheba (probably a Hittite), Naaman (a Syrian) and others. All the nations of the world being blessed and coming to know God.

A Reason For The Hope

“Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” I Peter 3:15.

As Christians, we often think we’re pretty good at this. We have our answers, our “reasons for hope”. We’re more or less prepared to give those whenever anyone asks. But they never do, for which we’re both disappointed and relieved.

Or we’re prepared to give them whether anyone is asking or not. Blam! Another drive-by witnessing.

But on coming to this verse in my regular Bible reading, I was struck by how the context isn’t quite what I had thought it ought to be based on the spin I’d normally heard given to this verse.

The wider context is about social relationships. Slaves and masters, husbands and wives, how to relate to society at large. The particulars may vary, but the general message is to be eager to do good in order to show to the world that those who want to portray Christianity as harmful do not have a leg to stand on.

In the contemporary master/slave relationship, that meant masters being considerate and good to their slaves, and slaves being eager to obey even a harsh unbeliever. It’s not a justification of slavery, but advice on how to live like a Christian in an anti-God social system.

In the contemporary patriarchal family structure, it meant husbands behaving considerately towards their wives, and wives behaving submissively towards their husbands. Again, not a justification of patriarchy but advice on how to live like a Christian in it.

In the wider social context it meant being eager to do good. And by doing good to silence those who viewed Christians as opposed to the social order, kin to terrorists, Bad People.

The immediate context is about suffering for doing good. The bridge is “Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? But even if you should suffer for doing what is right, it is commendable”.

Because there are people out there who are going to persecute and oppose, even if Christians are doing good. The point is to show those who are less inherently opposed and more open to reason that followers of Jesus are people who do good. In other words, to do what Gandhi did to the British Empire: yank the moral high ground right out from underneath.

Into this context comes the instruction to “in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. To not let persecution and opposition drive you away from your relationship with God in Jesus the Messiah. And only then follows Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope you have”.

In this context, it makes sense of something that’s always puzzled me: why do so few ask?

But in the context of a church being persecuted, harmed and killed, that responds by doing good…

Yeah. I can see how that would provoke people to ask why.

“But do this with gentleness and respect”, the verse finishes. The bit we often leave out when we quote. There should be no place in our faith for behaving like gits when we tell the truth and stand up for the Gospel. Consideration, gentleness and respect, not demonising our opponents or making gratuitous personal attacks.

Showing grace by the way we tell the truth, in other words.

Speaking Quenya to Klingons

Every group of people has its own words and terminology to a certain extent, even if that’s just the in-jokes of a circle of friends. Islam has its own vocabulary of Hadiths and Qibla and the ‘Umma, and other religions have their own words which encapsulate the things they deem important.

Christianity is no exception, of course, but with the added twist that Christianity has been the dominant faith in the West for long enough that people think they understand what a lot of it means, and is actually practised by a small enough fraction of the population that what people think it means doesn’t always match the way we use the term.

A lot of this terminology is both inevitable and beneficial. If the word “trinity” did not exist, we would have to invent it, because there isn’t another word that would do instead. It’s also a lot easier and quicker to say “preaching the Gospel” than to say “telling people who don’t know God about the good news of getting to have a restored relationship with God through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ”.

It’s all too easy for us to slip into certain habits of mind, though, among them the idea that because we know what we’re talking about that therefore everyone does, and secondly a sort of sloppy thinking. We use our Christian terminology so frequently among ourselves that we actually forget everything that’s packaged up in the term. Or a term gets certain baggage (“evangelism” is the classic one for that) and we end up rejecting the idea because we don’t like the baggage.

I spent some time in Central Asia, ministering (there’s another example) among people who had had the opportunity to hear the good news about Jesus for about a decade.

They didn’t have any of their own native Christian vocabulary, and all of mine was in a different language. It makes you quite good at explaining what you actually mean when you can’t use a churchy word that you subconsciously think everyone ought to understand.

Without any metaphorical uses of the word “son” in a culture, for example, so that the only way the word is ever used is in naming physical offspring, it becomes unhelpful to insist on “Son of God” as a description of Jesus”. Jesus isn’t the son of God in the way that mythologically, Heracles was the son of Zeus.

Without the word “holy”, you have to use a different word, like “sacred”, or unpack the term every time you want to talk about the Holy Spirit.

And while “sacred” and “holy” cover a lot of the same ground, they aren’t quite the same, particularly when you’re talking about how the Bible uses the word.

This is why Bible translation is such a big deal. Just by using one word that’s not quite right, you can potentially skew the understanding of a whole culture.

That wasn’t precisely what I wanted to talk about, though. What I wanted to draw out was that as more and more people in the West (yes, even in America) have become unchurched, it’s become more and more vital that we as followers of Jesus know how to explain what we mean without using Christian words. As I was saying last time, we’re increasingly dealing with what are effectively Greek pagans, and they have no foundational understanding.

Rather than saying “we have all sinned and we need a Saviour”, which is fine if you know what “sin” is and what we’re being saved from, we might have to start explaining that we’ve all messed up and done things wrong. We might point out how doing things wrong and messing up breaks relationships on a human level. We’ve all met people who can’t be trusted, but unfortunately, we none of us can be trusted to do everything 100% right all the time.

Rather than talking about substitutionary atonement or the Blood of the Lamb, which are very meaningful once you understand them, we might have to start explaining how both God and other people are hurt when we do things wrong, and that because God loves people He doesn’t want that to happen. It must be stopped, but because He loves even those who are doing the wrong things (that’s you and me, in case you missed it), He can’t just zap everyone who does wrong with thunderbolts, and because He’s incorruptible even by His own desires, He won’t magic everyone into little robots that just do what they are programmed to. That to solve this dilemma He came up with a rescue plan involving dying Himself to put an end to the dark desire to do what we want to do rather than the good we ought to do, and that restoring relationship with Him means both agreeing with Him about the problem (remember, He’s the only one in the universe who is ultimately good and trustworthy) and gratefully accepting His solution.

It takes more words to say it that way, but the end result just might be something that a person who’s only had minimal exposure to Christian things might understand a bit.

You’ll notice that a lot of the time on this blog I try to avoid Christiany words: I’ll almost always use “good news about Jesus the Messiah” rather than “Gospel”, and I’ll usually circumlocute around “evangelism” and even sometimes “Christian” as well. I find that “follower of Jesus” describes what’s actually supposed to be going on a lot better than “Christian” does; “trusting God” communicates the heart of what faith really is better, sometimes, than “faith”, and “believer” is a lot closer to accurate than “Christian”, particularly when the latter has become so often claimed by all and sundry (especially in American politics) whether or not you actually act like you trust God.

It takes a lot more thought and effort to consistently talk like this (I’m hardly consistent myself), but it is worthwhile. After all, we aren’t supposed to be telling people about Jesus merely for our own benefit, as if it earns us points with God. The Good News is supposed to be good news – something that is for other people’s benefit. If we keep on talking in words that only we understand, we might as well be speaking Quenya. Or Parseltongue. Or Klingon. Star Trek technology notwithstanding, the Universal Translator does not exist. We have to actually speak understandable words.

The Myth of the Christian Country

“America is a Christian country”.

I hear it every so often from various American believers, usually as the rationale behind some example of American exceptionalism or attempt to force pagans to live like Christians by force of law.

It’s an odd statement, on the face of it, and occasionally, when I’m feeling particularly bloodyminded, I challenge people on it.

“Really? What makes it Christian?”

Certainly not everyone in it is a Christian, or even claims to be (though in Texas it sometimes seems as though they do). Some vast percentage beyond all apparent reason claims to believe in God, but so do Muslims. So do Hindus, though they conceive of God in vastly different terms (ultimate reality is impersonal spirit, not personal Being). According to the Bible even demons believe in one God, for all the good it does them.

Some other nearly as vast percentage claims to be a Christian, and an only slightly smaller percentage claims to be born again. But claims and reality don’t always match up: I could claim to be a goat, but it wouldn’t noticeably increase my caprine traits.

A staggering number of people claim to be regular churchgoers, though it’s difficult to see where they could be hiding, given the comparatively low attendance numbers that churches collectively tend to report. I think a lot of people are telling the pollsters what they think ought to be true, not what actually is. And even if they were all in church, not everyone in a McDonalds is a chicken mcnugget.

We know all this, but it bears repeating, because we’re looking at how America is a Christian country. It obviously isn’t “Christian” in the sense of all (or a majority) of its citizens being followers of Christ.

If it were, things might get a little silly. The oath of citizenship might function as a sort of Sinner’s Prayer, and standing with hand on heart during The Star-Spangled Banner might be equivalent to Communion.

As I said, “silly”.

We’re told that the Founding Fathers were Christians. I must be careful what I say here as a foreigner, but doubtless many of them were or claimed to be. I have an abiding respect for the people who could write the Constitution of the United States, but it gets argued that many of them were at best Deists: believers in a kind of Watchmaker God who set everything going in the beginning, but who wasn’t much involved with human affairs.

You can argue this point backwards and forwards. The idea that you can create the ideal society and government by human effort is a very Deistic one, but then, the Founders’ consciousness of the hand of Providence in the great enterprise of nation-building points to a far more involved Supreme Being than real Deism portrays.

I’ve not really studied it myself very much, but I just point out that whether or not they were Christians is not straightforward to judge at this temporal distance. Even if they were alive today, Scripture warns us against presuming to be in the place of God deciding who is saved and who isn’t. And even assuming they were, that’s not quite the same as the country itself as a whole being Christian.

We are told that America was founded on Christian principles. This is by far the most common argument advanced, as well as the most interesting.

I always want to ask “Which ones?”

Do not murder, do not steal, do not commit adultery, do not bear false witness against your neighbour are all fundamental to our moral laws, but they aren’t exclusively Christian principles. Every traditional moral code in existence has something like most of these.

When it comes down to it, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is the basis of punitive justice – not to go further in redressing a grievance than the original ill – but Christians are called to a higher law. I really can’t see that much evidence for specifically Christian principles like turning the other cheek, forgiving as God forgave us and not looking to our own works to achieve any standing for ourselves before God.

Admittedly, a nation’s corporate morality isn’t always quite the same as an individuals, because a nation has a responsibility to protect its citizens, and sometimes that means a soldier, sailor or airman being told to go and kill someone for the sake of the nation’s safety. But I stand by my statement: specifically Christian foundational principles aren’t that easy to find in any nation’s legal underpinnings.

And it‘s not that Britain has historically been any different. Every argument advanced for America being Christian has also been advanced at some time for the United Kingdom, and we have a state church of which the Sovereign is the earthly head, which might actually make it easier to argue the case of “Christian countryhood”. America has a Constitution specifically forbidding the establishment of one religion as the national faith.

But the Church in Britain has largely abandoned its comforting illusion that “Britain is a Christian country”. Most of the time, the people who still think this is the case are Muslims, because that’s how Islam works.

It’s a comforting idea. It allows us to feel really good about our country (and who doesn’t like to do that?), and indeed, it makes patriotism into a sacred duty. It gives us, or appears to give us, a moral basis for challenging laws we don’t like.

But it’s ultimately an illusion.

With the possible exception of Israel, I don’t believe God counts nation-states themselves as His children, and even with Israel the Bible makes a distinction between the physical and spiritual Israels: A man is not a Jew if one is merely one outwardly; the true circumcision is of the heart and not performed by the hands of men. I’d personally add in a distinction between the Jewish nation, the spiritual Israel and the State of Israel, but that’s not to say they don’t overlap, in some cases quite a lot.

Put another way, I’m not a Christian because I’m English any more than Jesus is a horse because He was born in a stable.

But so what? Even if it’s kind of illusory, it’s not doing any harm, is it?

The real danger presented by this comforting illusion is that it makes the church take its position for granted.

If we ever could, we can afford to do that no longer. There are more people than ever growing up in America without any real connection with a church. Not only do they not believe in Jesus, they don’t even have the basic concepts we take for granted: sin (many people think it means sex, or else “big” sins like murder and stealing), grace (“that thing some people do before they eat to show how holy they are”), holy (I think most people’s functioning definition is “austere, unpleasant and a killjoy”) and so on.

We can no longer assume that people know what we mean when we say “repent and believe the Gospel”. This is partly why so much of the time you’ll see me unpack the term and say something more along the lines of “good news about the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah” rather than “Gospel”. We keep on assuming that Americans are like the Jews in New Testament times: that they already have most of the foundations, and you just have to challenge them to yield control of their lives to God. In reality, increasingly Americans are like Greeks in the New Testament: they have no grasp of the Law, the Prophets, who God is or even that there really is one God. They have their own little gods that they pursue and trust in: money, sex, power, stuff, sports, music. But in increasing numbers they know nothing about God.

Britain is even further down that road. If you assume that a Brit is churched in any degree whatsoever, you’re probably in for a rude shock.

Don’t get me wrong; it would be great if people had more of a foundation. We wouldn’t have to do so much building of truth into people’s lives in order to get them to understand why the death of an innocent man is Good News. But we would be fools if we were to assume the presence of a foundation that isn’t there. No-one building a house just assumes that the foundation has already been laid; trust me, I work in construction. It takes more work and more time if we have to put in the foundations as well, but do we really want to build a temple for the Living God on foundations of sand?